Props to Young Adult Fiction. Mad props, actually. This genre has been on fire of late. Not just because of the “Girl on Fire,” who also deserves serious praise, but because of how high YA authors have raised the bar.
Great YA characters are not new, of course. Consider Holden Caulfield, Gene Forrester and Pony boy—all fabulous characters. I’m glad these books are still read in schools across America because they are an important part of our culture.
But there are some new kids on the block.
The school systems may not have caught up with these books yet, but you can. Here are five new teen characters that make the world a better place:
1. Laurence Roach from 15 Days Without a Head by Dave Cousins.
It’s impossible not to fall in love with Laurence Roach who, just to make him that much more appealing, narrates in an English accent. It’s definitely impossible not to fall in love with his little brother, Jay, who thinks he’s a dog. And it’s completely impossible not to want to rip their mother’s head off. But that’s what makes Laurence so admirable; he can’t. Mrs. Roach may be a sad alcoholic and an unfit mother, but she’s family. And Laurence Roach doesn’t give up family, even when it just might be the smarter choice.
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2. Bee Fox from Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple.
Coming from Arrested Development, we would have expected nothing but clever from author Maria Semple. Bee Fox is a perfectly rendered teenage daughter. She captures the reader’s heart despite her frequent sarcasm because, well, sometimes she’s got a point. Her mother is a nutcase, her father is an intellectual outcast, and she’s been promised a trip to Antarctica for getting straight A’s—which they suddenly can’t deliver. Yet, instead of slamming her door and burrowing herself inside her bedroom for days, Bee takes action. Not only does she outthink the adults around her, she saves them—in ways that will surprise you. (Warning: This epistolary may cause a few people to get a speeding ticket of the brain, but trust me, it’s worth the risk.)
3. Hazel from The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.
If you haven’t heard of this book before now, and you love YA books, drop everything you are doing and download it. John Green creates characters that today’s teenagers don’t just adore, they worship. And they should. Hazel, the protagonist with stage IV thyroid cancer is brutally aware that she has limited time left on Earth. Yet while others in her position might want many great things—including a cure—the only thing Hazel wants is not to break her parent’s hearts. And later, not to break Augustus’s. Not interested in leaving a legacy or finding fame—even if it’s only in social media—Hazel understands that who she is right now, at this very moment, is good enough. Hazel does what most of us can’t: she dares to be unimportant. Perhaps that’s the definition of a true hero.
4. Valerie from Rape Girl by Alina Klein.
This book could have been so many things: it could have been depressing, it could have been unconvincing, it could have been hard to read. But it wasn’t any of those things. It was great. Valerie’s story makes me mad and it will probably make you mad too. What Valerie suffers during the rape is horrid, but what she suffers afterwards is a longer version of horrid. Bullied, ignored, blamed, Valerie becomes a shell of her former self. Almost. But then there’s that courage and strength and inner power that peeks out for a tiny look. It takes an undefined faith in the human heart to rise above a horror that a fellow human being has caused, and not everyone can or maybe should do it. But Valerie does. This is the kind of story that chips away at taboo topics and unleashes forgiveness, even when that forgiveness may be undeserved.
5. Sebastian Ranes from Greyhound by Steffan Piper.
Sebastian Ranes’s mother no longer wants him—and he knows it. So begins this heartbreaking story of a young boy left at the bus station to travel solo across the country. His grandparents are waiting for him at the other end of the journey, but what happens in between is both sweet and sour, disturbing and amazing. Sebastian is well-aware that he’s been dumped by his mother forever, but rather than collapsing in grief, he dares to befriend ex-con Marcus who teaches him that holding onto the hurt will only destroy him. There are other people in this great big world to love and be loved by, Marcus explains, even if the one person that should love him just doesn’t.
I hope you will love these books as much as I do. As the great David Sedaris says, books can save a soul. I have a feeling these five characters already have.
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